Making the most of winter break

College students urged to put career plans into action

Sleep may be priority No. 1 for many college students who are wrapping up finals and returning home for winter break. Advisers from the Career Center at Washington University in St. Louis suggest students use the time, not only to recharge, but to reflect and self-evaluate. The extended break is an ideal time to think about options, update resumes, network and put career plans into action.

Mark W. Smith, JD, assistant vice chancellor and director of the Career Center, says that most students take a traditional approach to finding a job, based on their past experiences.

“The traditional way is the way students apply to college — you fill out an application, people make a decision and they get back to you. That’s probably the paradigm most college students have when they’re applying for a job. It’s really a rational and orderly method. Unfortunately, it’s not how most people get their jobs,” he says.

In reality, effective job hunting is more similar to dating than the college application process. “It’s getting out, meeting a lot of people. It’s a little bit arbitrary and capricious, but that’s kind of the way it works.

“The nontraditional way can work better,” Smith says. “It helps you find hidden jobs. Many jobs are not advertised. So this way will get you to those jobs and to the decision-makers. It can help you jump out of the pile.”

Five tips for college students:

  1. Realize you are already connected! You might feel nervous about the idea of networking, but it’s actually very natural. Simply find someone doing something related to what you want to do and talk to him or her. Try it with your family, friends, friends’ parents and neighbors. You’ll be surprised how close you probably are to great resources.
  2. Expand your list of contacts. At some point, it will be important for you to break away from your comfort zone of friends and family and introduce yourself to new people. Reach out to people whose work has impressed you. Send a quick note or email; contact people you read about in articles and introduce yourself and tell them you enjoyed their comments.
  3. Establish a LinkedIn account. Join local groups and professional associations to stay attuned to what’s happening in your particular industry. Access your school’s alumni group to look for contacts involved in your industry.
  4. Create a target employer list based on your skills and things that you love. What kinds of companies or organizations interest you?
  5. Become a pro at informational interviewing. After researching an organization’s website, call to ask for the name of a person you can call or email and request an opportunity to talk in person. An informational interview is excellent chance for you to ask questions to learn about the rewards, challenges and typical characteristics of a career. Here, you might also learn about summer internships or other opportunities.

As Smith suggests, most professionals enjoy sharing advice and chatting about common interests with young people. “Think of it this way: Would you mind telling a student from your high school about what it’s like to be a student at your college or university? You’d probably enjoy it. Informational interviewing is the same thing, but with you in the role of the interviewer.

“It can make you a stronger candidate when you do go in for interviews,” Smith says. “You’re going to know much more about the industry, about a potential employer and the job and you’re going to be a much more effective applicant.”